Google has unveiled a test version of a much-awaited antipiracy system for its wildly popular yet controversial YouTube video-sharing site.
The system, called Video Identification, has been far from a secret. Google executives have been mentioning its development since the company acquired YouTube in November of last year.
YouTube, which lets people upload and share clips, is the most popular video site, but some angry video owners have taken the company to court alleging copyright infringement.
The best-known plaintiff is global media conglomerate Viacom, which sued Google in March for US$1 billion over the unauthorized uploading of video clips from its TV shows and movies. In its complaint, Viacom alleged that, as of March, almost 160,000 of its video clips had been uploaded to YouTube without permission and had been viewed over 1.5 billion times.
The antipiracy system became news in July, when an attorney representing Google in the Viacom case said during a routine hearing that Video Identification would be ready by September.
When describing the system, Google has consistently stressed that it will not block videos from being uploaded, but rather take action, if necessary, after they have been added to the YouTube site.
In other words, Google has never planned to place uploaded videos in a holding queue while it checks whether they can be made available on YouTube.
Instead, Google will match uploaded clips against a repository of legitimate videos provided by their owners using digital fingerprinting technology and will take whatever action the copyright owner has requested, such as removing the clip or leaving it up on YouTube.
In designing the system in this manner, Google has maintained that its policies exceed the requirements of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, as long as it removes from YouTube, upon request, illegally copied videos that owners don't want uploaded without their permission.
That story didn't change on Monday, when Google described Video Identification in a blog posting and in a YouTube page.
"Video Identification goes above and beyond our legal responsibilities. It will help copyright holders identify their works on YouTube, and choose what they want done with their videos: whether to block, promote, or even -- if a copyright holder chooses to license their content to appear on the site -- monetize their videos," David King, YouTube Product Manager, wrote in the blog post.
For now, video owners interested in participating in the beta testing of the system need to submit a request to Google, but the company expects to make it broadly available as the testing progresses.
"As we scale and refine our system, YouTube Video Identification will be available to all kinds of copyright holders all over the world, whether they want their content to appear on YouTube or not," the YouTube information page reads.
It remains to be seen whether this highly anticipated system will help to appease those video content owners who argue that YouTube doesn't do enough to prevent and combat piracy on its site and that instead it profits from the unauthorized and illegal uploading of copyright clips.
Asked for comment about the YouTube system, a Viacom spokesman said via e-mail: "The case still continues. We've clearly suffered significant past damages, which are also a subject of the litigation. It's really too early to tell what the effect of this development might be on the case."
Eric Goldman, assistant professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, doesn't believe the DMCA requires a site such as YouTube to have a video ID system like this one.
Nevertheless, from a legal perspective, having this system could have both positive and negative consequences for Google if the case goes to trial, he said.
For example, the plaintiffs could try to use the system's existence against Google by arguing that it proves Google could have done more in the past to prevent and combat infringement.
Along those lines, the plaintiffs could also identify cases of infringement the system fails to identify -- once it is fully implemented -- and then argue that Google built it poorly and thus should take responsibility for the copyright violations.
On the other hand, Google could present the system as an example that it is going beyond what the law requires in order to do the right thing and try to get the judge to find its efforts laudable, Goldman said.
In practice, the system's efficacy depends on the willingness of video content owners to cooperate with the effort and submit their TV shows, movies and other material to Google for inclusion in the repository.
On a broader scale, Goldman believes the case is ripe for a settlement. "It makes no sense for these parties to be litigating in court," he said. "There are many ways they could work together that would be mutually beneficial."